The Phoenician City

112 The Phocean CityIf you have already visited the City of Love and you’re wondering where else to go in France, why not to leave for Marseilles? I do believe you won’t regret it as it’s hugged between mountains and the Mediterranean Sea which suggests diverse climate and nature. As to the history and tourist sites of interest, indeed, there are plenty of them because it’s the oldest French urban settlement.

It was founded in 600 BC when Greek sailors from Phocaea (Asia Minor) reached the coast and settled down there. Being great sailors and traders they laid the foundations of their settlement Massalia around the port (which became famous as the Old Port later, in the 19th century) and turned the city into an import commercial centre. Thus it’s always been developed as such through its long, long history. Just a quick note here. It was the major trade port of the French Empire and nowadays it’s the largest Mediterranean commercial port.

Nowadays Vieux-Port (i.e the Old Port) is located at the far end of the major thoroughfare called Canebière where hemp (Cannabis) used to be cultivated for ropes for mariners. A near attraction is Île d’If that is situated only 3.5km off the Old Port. The island is an extremely popular destination worldwide because of its Château d’If.  A “château” is a 3-storey square building, with 28-metre long sides and three towers, and gun embrasures. The island was chosen due to its strategic location for defending the Marseilles coasts from sea attacks. Later the fortress was turned into a prison. And do you know why it is so notorious nowadays? Because Alexandre Dumas chose it as a setting for his amazing adventure novel “The Count of Monte Cristo” in the 19th century. Edmond Dantès (the main character of the book) managed to escape from there after a 14-year imprisonment and thus his legendary deed made him the first and only person who had dared and succeeded in doing it.

Speaking about freedom, Marseilles gave the name to the French anthem. The latter was penned by Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle only in one night and played at a revolutionary gathering in the city. Then it was copied and given to the troops of volunteers recruited in the town. And namely these revolutionary forces sang the marching song in the streets for the first time in May and then later, on July 30, 1792, the same Marseilles fédérés (or volunteers in English) entered Paris singing it. Thus it was renamed to La Marseillaise (“the marching song of the National Guard of Marseille”).

After having got tired of raiding tourist sites, you would probably like to have a meal and ask yourself what you could have for lunch. For sure, you have no other choice but try the most famous fish stew of the Mediterranean region. Well, it seems to be extremely delicious and wish you much luck with pronouncing its name – Bouillabaisse (frankly speaking, I could not pronounce it properly even after the 10th attempt … blush). Apart from its difficult name, it has a very interesting origin. According to one apocryphal story, the fish stew was the most powerful weapon of Venus who served it to her husband Vulcan and he fell asleep immediately. Thus the Goddess managed to date with Mars.  Greek writers relate the soup to “kakavia” which was prepared by the ancient Greek founders of Marseilles. Some Italian historic sources say that the likely ancestor of the Provençal bouillabaisse is a 15th century Italian fish stew named brodecto de li dicti pisci. And there’re so many other hypotheses about its origin, so it makes no sense to continue. The last thing I will mention will be about the uniqueness of the soup. It’s different from other types of fish soups because it’s made of at least three species of fish plus seafood. Typically Provençal herbs and spices give the specific aroma and taste, especially, when they are mixed up with various irresistible fresh vegetables.  And finally, the traditional way of serving Bouillabaisse is separately. The broth itself in a soup plate with slices of bread and sauce rouille are served first and then the plate of fish comes second. But sometimes this tradition is not followed and the soup is not served separately.

In the end, you might probably have already been got enthusiastic about Marseilles and have decided to set a journey to the city of coastal sunshine, delicious food and world famous wines. If it’s your case, I suggest that you get prepared preliminarily with “The Marseille Caper” and “The Corsican Caper” by Peter Mayle. You won’t resist the opportunity of further excitement together with the main characters Sam Levitt and beautiful Elena Morales  who get involved in a complex real-estate mission in which they are chased by gangsters and businessmen – slaves to their business ambitions and construction aims.

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